This article will explain how the US media’s recent intense focus on the scourge of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) provides many important lessons on how to cure the media’s dismal failure to provide adequate coverage of the more menacing crisis of climate change. While acknowledging a legitimate public interest in the media’s indispensable role in keeping citizens as well informed as possible on the status of the threat of COVID-19, this article examines the media’s consequential failure to adequately inform US citizens about a host of issues they need to understand to effectively evaluate any nation’s response to climate change and judge the argument’s that have been and continue to be made by opponents of climate change, a problem which we will explain is much more threatening than COVID -19. This article also explains how the media’s coverage of COVID-19 provides lessons on how they could greatly improve their failing coverage of climate change.
The ethical issues raised by arguments raised against climate change policies often raise obvious ethical problems such as the claim that a country such as the United States need not adopt policies if they will impose unacceptable costs on the nation or an industry discussed in this video. There are, however, many other examples of strong ethical problems with arguments made against proposed climate change policies that are not discussed in this video that are discussed on this website, ethicsandclimate.org. See the “index and start here” tab above on this website for other topics.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
Greta Thunberg’s September 23rd speech at the UN on climate change was a brilliant lesson both on the potential power of bringing attention to moral bankruptcy of arguments made by opponents of needed climate change policies, as well as a model for how to make moral and ethical arguments critical of reasons offered in opposition to climate policies. Thunberg’s speech successfully demonstrated the power of moral arguments critical of claims made by opponents of climate change policies for two reasons: first, because of her speech’s rhetorical excellence, and second for Thunberg’s selection of facts about climate change which supported the speech’s main thesis that governments’ failures to act to reduce the threat of climate change are morally repugnant.
A. The Speech’s Rhetorical Excellence
Aristotle claimed in his writing on rhetoric that speakers are effective in persuading their listeners if the speaker exhibits three qualities: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.
Ethos. Speakers exhibit ethos if they convince listeners that the speaker is motivated by what is right or wrong, not by self-interest. Greta Thunberg effectively communicated by her choice of words, rhythm, and emotions that she was motivated by the moral indefensibility of governments that have refused to do what is necessary to avoid climate change harms given the facts she stated in support of this conclusion.
Pathos. Effective speakers demonstrate some passion about the injustice that is motivating him or her. Greta Thunberg’s display of anger was palpable and supported by the facts she relied upon.
Logos. In an effective speech, the speaker’s claims and conclusions are clear and logical. The facts which motivated and supported the premise of her speech, namely that governments’ responses to climate change are morally repugnant, were clearly stated.
B. The Speech’s Foundational Facts
The facts the speech relied upon to support the claim that governments’ responses to climate change are morally indefensible were very persuasive. The speech made the following claims about governments’ inadequate response to climate change:
1, You have stolen my dreams. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.
2. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50 % chance of staying below 1.5 degrees [Celsius], and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.
3. 50 % may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.
4. “So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.
5. “To have a 67% chance of staying below a 1.5 degrees global temperature rise – the best odds given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – the world had 420 gigatons of CO2 left to emit back on Jan. 1st, 2018. Today that figure is already down to less than 350 gigatons.
6. How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
7. “There will not be any solutions or plans presented in line with these figures here today, because these numbers are too uncomfortable. And you are still not mature enough to tell it like it is.
She then invited listeners to reflect on the moral significance of these facts by repeating the words “How dare you” four times after stating the facts.
The facts that Greta Thunberg relied on to support her conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible effectively supported this conclusion.
There are many other facts that proponents of climate change policies could also rely on to support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible. For instance proponents of climate change policies could bring attention to the following facts which also support the conclusion that governments’ inadequate responses to climate change are morally indefensible:
The staggering magnitude of percent reductions in GHG emissions needed to achieve any warming limit goal such as 1.5 C or 2.0 C become greater the longer governments wait to respond because current emissions are rapidly consuming any carbon budget that the world must live within to achieve any warming limit goal.
The IPCC carbon budgets on which the quantity of reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal have been calculated through the use of climate models which have ignored some of the positive feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting permafrost or rapid breakup of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, both of which are already starting to happen.
The percentage reductions needed to achieve any warming limit goal articulated by IPCC are for the entire world and ignore the legal, practical, and ethical obligations of developed countries to go faster than poor developed countries under the concept of “equity.”
Although skepticism in science is necessary for science to develop, sociologists have documented that fossil fuel companies have funded disinformation about climate science to undermine public confidence in the conclusions of the most prestigious scientific organizations in the world. See Why Climate Science Disinformation is So Ethically Abhorrent
This site has often commented negatively on the propensity of many proponents of climate change policies to justify climate action largely by making claims that simply counter the factual arguments of opponents of climate change such as that climate change policies are unjustified because they will impose unacceptable costs on the economy, to which most proponents of climate policies often respond by claiming that policies will create new jobs. Such responses allow opponents of climate change to frame the problem in a way that ignores the moral problems with their arguments. Philosophers call this type of reasoning, which is reasoning exclusively based on facts that ignores ethical and justice issues “instrumental reasoning’ and sociologists have warned for over a decade that economically powerful entities would accomplish their goals by tricking citizens to limit their arguments about public policy to instrumental reasons. The mainstream media, at least in the United States, almost never brings attention when the fossil fuel industry and other opponents of climate policy make factual economic or scientific uncertainty arguments against climate policies to the strong ethical arguments that can be made in response to these claims.
The facts relied upon by Greta Thunberg and those above could help citizens understand the moral indefensibility of governments’ inadequate responses to climate change. Armed with such facts and learning from Greta Thunberg’s excellent rhetorical techniques could make climate change activists more effective in getting governments to make the extraordinary urgent hard-to-imagine reductions in GHG emissions needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
Sociologists also claim that the most successful social movements are energized by a strong sense of unfairness or injustice of the status quo. For this reason, although appeals to the self-interest of citizens based upon identifying the harms from climate change that they will experience should continue, such an appeal to self-interest alone does not justify ignoring the strong moral problems with the arguments of those who oppose climate change policies. In fact, only responding to the factual scientific and economic arguments of climate change policy opponents by making counter “factual” economic and scientific claims has the ironic effect of justifying the notion that these instrumental reasons for opposing climate change policies are ethically legitimate. In addition, as we have explained in the recent website entry UNESCO Examines the Urgency of and Strategy for Getting Traction for Ethical Guidance in Climate Change Policy Formation at Bangkok Program.there is no hope of averting catastrophic climate impacts unless governments comply with their ethical obligations under the UNFCCC. Moreover. not raising ethical problems with the arguments of those opposing climate change policies is a practical mistake because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to survive minimum ethical scrutiny. They usually violate non-controversial, widely agreed-upon ethical principles such as human rights obligations, the “no-harm” principle of customary international law, or the “precautionary principle” expressly agreed to by all nations in the 1992 UNFCCC among many other ethical principles.
For these reasons, Greta Thunberg’s UN speech should be honored and used as an inspiration by climate activists around the world while encouraging the media to cover the ethical issues raised by climate change formation controversies.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar in Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law
On July 31, 2018, a paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which should create a shiver of fear in all humans everywhere. The paper, Trajectories in the Earth System in the Anthropoceneby Steffen et..al., explains how human-induced warming is rapidly approaching levels that may trigger positive climate feedbacks which could greatly accelerate the warming already plaguing the world by causing record floods, deadly heat waves and droughts, increasing tropical diseases, forest fires, more intense and damaging storms, sea level rise, coral bleaching, acidification of oceans, all of which are contributing to increasing the number of refugees which are destabilizing governments around the world.
The Steffen et. al. paper also describes how the positive feedbacks depicted in the following graphic, once triggered could initiate other feedbacks creating a cascade of positive feedbacks, each of which could speed up the warming which is already causing great harm and suffering around the world. The paper claims this mechanism could make life on much of the Earth uninhabitable which could lead to social collapse on the global scale and ultimately to warming increases that human reductions of greenhouse gases (ghg) emissions alone would not prevent until the global system reached a new temperature equilibrium at much higher temperatures than the human race has ever experienced. In other words, cascading positive feedbacks in the climate system could result in humans losing control over reducing disastrous warming.
Steffen et. al,, supra pg. 4.
If this is not scary enough, the Steffen et. al. paper concluded some of these feedbacks could be triggered between 1 degree C to 3 degrees C, suggesting that the “risk of tipping cascades could be significant at a 2 degree C rise (Steffen at al p.7), the upper warming limit goal of the Paris Agreement which President Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from.
Given that even if temperature increases already baked into the system don’t trigger positive feedbacks until global temperatures rise by 2 degrees C and given the enormous challenge facing the world to achieve the 2 degrees C warming limit goal agreed to by the international community in Paris in 2015 requires the international community to achieve net zero CO2 emissions by 2070 (UNEP, Emissions Gap, 2016), the international community needs to immediately join forces to achieve extraordinarily ambitious international cooperation almost immediately to achieve the 2 degree C warming limit goal. However, given that the 2 degree C warming limit goal agreed to in Paris was selected because it was believed that if warming increases could be limited to 2 degrees C, triggering dangerous climate system positive feedbacks was unlikely, the conclusions of the Steffen et al paper that positive feedbacks could be triggered below 2 degrees C additional warming must be interpreted as a justification for a call for an unprecedented urgent global cooperative effort to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon sinks as rapidly as humanly possible.
Given that human-induced climate change is now widely understood to be an existential threat to life on Earth unless all nations rapidly reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) to net zero as fast as possible, Americans urgently need to understand certain features of the problem which have been infrequently mentioned in the US national climate change conversation including the following:
There is growing evidence that even if global ghg emissions could be reduced to near zero rapidly, there is enough carbon already in the atmosphere that limiting warming to the then 2 degrees C warming limit goal by the end of this Century has only a 5% chance (Mooney, 2017).
Every day that nations fail to reduce their GHG emissions to levels required of them to achieve a warming limit goal such as 2 degrees C makes the problem worse because budgets available for the whole world that must constrain global emissions to achieve any warming limit goal shrink as emissions continue. Therefore, the speed that nations reduce their GHG emissions reductions is as important as the magnitude of reductions identified by any national GHG reduction commitment. For this reason, any national commitment on climate change should not only identify the amount of ghg emissions that will be reduced by a certain date, but the reduction pathway by which these reductions will be achieved,
For reasons stated in the Seffen et.al. paper, climate change is an existential threat to life on Earth that requires the international community to rapidly take extraordinarily aggressive coordinated steps not only sufficient to prevent global temperatures from rising no than more than 2 degrees C, the upper warming limit agreed to by the international community in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but to minimize any additional warming as quickly as possible,
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which the US ratified in 1992, the US has a legal duty under the concept of “equity” to reduce its GHG emissions more rapidly than most other nations, and although there is reasonable disagreement among nations about what “equity” requires of them, any reasonable interpretation of equity would require the US to make much larger and more rapid GHG reductions than almost all other nations given that the United States emitted 5,011,687 metric kilo tons (kt) of CO2 equivalent emissions in 2016, second only to China’s 10,432,741 kt CO2. (Netherlands Environmental Agency). The US also has an equitable duty to more aggressively reduce its emissions than most other countries because it has emitted a greater amount of cumulative CO2 emissions, that is 29.3% of global CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2002, while China emitted 7.6% during the same period, (WRI, Cumulative Emissions) making the US much more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to the current level of 406 ppm than any country. Also given the US is responsible for 15.56 metric tons per capita CO2 emissions which is more than twice as much as China’s 7.45 metric tons per capita in 2016 (World Bank), as a matter of equity the US must reduce its GHG emissions much more rapidly and steeply than almost all countries,
The US duty to formulate its ghg emissions reduction target on the basis of equity is not only required by its legal obligations under the UNFCCC, practically the US and other high emitting nations must reduce their GHG emissions by much greater amounts and faster than poor developing nations because if they don’t the poorer nations will have to reduce their GHG emissions almost immediately to near zero CO2 so that global emissions don’t exceed the carbon budget available to prevent a warming limit such as 2 degrees C from being exceeded,
Any US policy response to climate change such as a carbon tax must be structured to reduce US ghg emissions to levels and speeds required of the US to achieve its responsibilities to the rest of the world to prevent dangerous climate change. Thus, if the US were to pass a carbon tax, the imposition of a tax must either reduce US GHG emissions to the level and the speed required of it by its obligations or be supplemented by other policy responses such as, for instance, mandatory conversions of electric power generation from fossil fuel combustion to renewable energy by a date certain or mandatory requirements for electric vehicles,
Because GHG emissions from every country mix rapidly in the atmosphere, all nations emissions are contributing to rising atmospheric GHG concentrations thus harming people and ecological systems on which life depends all over the world. Thus, the US may not formulate its climate change policies only on the basis of costs and benefits to itself alone, it must acknowledge and respond to the devastating climate change harms the United States is already contributing to that are being experienced around the world and particularly by poor people and nations that are most vulnerable to climate change impacts. For this reason, the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on the basis of “putting US interests first” is deeply morally indefensible and tragic because of the damage it will likely cause to the world,
Because of the rapid speed required of the US to reduce its ghg emissions to net zero carbon emissions, the US urgently needs to put ghg emissions reductions on the equivalent of a wartime footing by not only adopting policy responses that can achieve ghg emission reduction goals required of it, but also by investing in research and development in new technologies that can facilitate and achieve the its ghg emission reduction obligations and increase carbon sinks that could reduce the rise in atmospheric ghg concentrations,
The United States needs to develop a strategy to achieve these objectives in the next two years and begin implementing the strategy immediately as quickly as possible.
A.Urgent Need For Greater Understanding Among Nations and Civil Society of How Nations Should Formulate and ExplainTheir NDCs under the Paris Agreement.
Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concluded not surprisingly that when 24 governments identified greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets they ignored their legal duties to set a national target on the basis of preventing dangerous anthropogenic climate change, equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities in light of national circumstances under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement. In all cases, this research concluded that nations inappropriately took national economic self-interest into account in establishing their GHG reduction target. (Nationclimatejustice.org) while not clearly explaining how their GHG reduction targets were formulated on the basis of what was required of nations under law. This conclusion was not surprising to the researchers. But what was very surprising was that the vast majority of NGOs in these countries appeared not to understand how a nation should quantitatively formulate a target in light of its nondiscretionary and discretionary duties under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Without an understanding of how a nation should formulate and explain its GHG emissions reduction target, nations and civil society will not be able to effectively evaluate a nation’s NDC.
It is this writer’s view that the widespread ignorance around the world about how a nation should set a GHG target is attributable to the fact that although nations have been setting GHG targets for many years, only recently have they had to expressly respond to the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals and to in so doing take the equity requirements of the Paris Agreement seriously while at the same time being clear and transparent in how they responded to there obligations under the Paris Agreement. Up until recently, a nation could set a GHG target without considering how much of a shrinking carbon budget that remains to achieve a warming limit goal the nation was going to allocate to itself on the basis of equity. Very few nations, if any, have expressly formulated their national GHG reduction targets on the basis of a carbon budget that remained to achieve a warming limit goal.
Because the Paris Agreement’s success depends on nations being clear and transparent in explaining how they formulated their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, yet there is widespread ignorance around the world on how nations should formulate their NDCs to comply with their obligations under the Paris deal, there is an urgent need to help nations and civil society around the world understand how a nation should formulate its NDC to comply with their obligations under the Paris Agreement.
B. A New Paper Explains How Nations Should Formulate and Justify their NDCs under Paris Agreement
To meet this need, a new paper describes 4 steps in detail that all governments should follow to comply with their legal obligations under the Paris Agreement as well as the information that nations should include with their NDCs about how they formulated their NDCs, which information is necessary to comply with the clarity and transparency requirements of the Paris Agreement.
The paper is: A Four-Step Process for Formulating and Evaluating Legal Commitments Under the Paris Agreement. Donald A Brown, Hugh Breakey, Peter Burdon, Brendan Mackey, Prue Taylor, Carbon & Climate Law Review, Vol 12, (2018) Issue 2, Pags 98 – 108, https://doi.org/10.21552/cclr/2018/2/
The four steps are:
(1) Select a global warming limit to be achieved by the GHG emissions reduction target. The description of this step also explains the need of nations to explain why it chose a warming limit goal greater than the 1.5 degree C goal but no less than 2.0 degree warming limit goal.
(2) Identify a global carbon budget consistent with achieving the global warming limit at an acceptable probability. The paper includes a description of how a nation should identify a carbon budget to achieve a warming limit goal and other considerations relevant to identifying a carbon budget on which the GHG reduction target will be based.
(3) Determine the national fair share of the global carbon budget based upon equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. This section of the paper does not resolve all controversies about how to interpret equity under the Paris Agreement, although it does identify principles identified by IPCC that nations should follow in applying equity to guide their GHG reduction target and information that nations should include with their NDC that explains how they applied discretion in determining what equity requires of the nation.
(4) Specify the annual rate of national GHG emissions Reductions on the pathway to net zero emissions.This section explains that because different amounts of shrinking carbon budgets will be consumed by how long it takes a nation to achieve a quantitative GHG emissions reduction amount, nations need to explain the nation’s reduction pathway over time to determine how much of a global budget available for the whole world the nation is allocating to itself.
The paper also explains why expressly following these steps is necessary to ensure that a nation’s NDC is sufficiently transparent to allow the Paris Agreement’s “stocktake” and “transparency mechanism” processes achieve their goal of increasing national ambition if necessary to achive the Paris Agreement’s warming limit goals.
In addition to describing the steps nations should follow in formulating their NDC, the paper includes a chart which summarizes information that should be supplied with their NDC when it transmits the NDC to UNFCCC, information necessary to make the Paris Agreement’s transparency requirementts work and information necessary to evaluate the adequacy of the NDC under the Paris Agreement.
I. The Failure of Ethical Principles to Get Traction in Climate Change Policy Formation.
This entry will explain why a type of rationality, referred to as instrumental rationality, both dominates policy formation on climate change around the world and is responsible for the failure of ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change.
As we have explained frequently on Ethicsandclimate.org, climate change is a problem with features that particularly require that it be seen and responded to as an ethical problem even more than other environmental problems. These features include that:
First, it is a problem that is being caused by some people in one part of the world who are putting others in other places who have often done little to cause the problem at great risk.
Second, the harms to those at most risk are not mere inconveniences but potentially catastrophic harms to life and natural resources on which life depends. In fact, unless humans adequately respond to climate change’s growing threats, most of life on Earth is threatened.
Finally climate change is a problem about which many of its greatest victims can do little to protect themselves by petitioning their governments for protection. The victims’ best hope is that the those high-emitting nations and people causing the problem will see that they have duties to climate change victims to avoid harming them.
The ethical dimensions of climate change are important to understand because unless those nations and individuals that are emitting high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) reduce their emissions in accordance with their ethical obligations, climate change will eventually cause great harm to all but particularly to those who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts and who usually have done little to cause the great harm.
There are many ethical principles that should, without controversy, guide national responses to climate change. These include, for instance:
Governments around the world have agreed under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 1992) and agreements by parties under this treaty since then, including the Paris Agreement (Paris Agreement 2015), to adopt national climate change policies on the basis of several ethical principles including the duty to establish national policies in accordance with equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.1), to apply the precautionary principle that prohibits nations from using scientific uncertainty as an excuse for not taking action to prevent dangerous anthropocentric interference with the climate system (UNFCCC, 1992, Art 3.3), and the principle that developed countries have the obligation to take the lead on reducing the threat of climate change (UNFCCC,1992, Art 3.1), and to enact policies that limit warming to between 1.5 to 2.0 degrees C (United Nations, 2015 Art 2)
In addition there are numerous other non-controversial ethical norms that are understood to apply to nations as a matter of international law to global environmental problems such as climate change including the “no harm principle” which obligates nations to prevent people or entities within their jurisdiction from harming people and nations outside their borders (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble), and the “polluter pays principle” which requires those nations causing harm from pollution to pay for the damages they cause (Rio Declaration, 1992, Principle 16).
Yet most nations are completely ignoring these ethical obligations when they formulate policy responses to climate change (National Climate Justice. Lessons Learned).
A research project led by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland found that despite express national promises under the Paris Agreement to base national climate commitments known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to reduce the threat of climate change to prevent warming as close as possible to 1.5°C but no more than 2°C, on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities, all 24 nations studied actually set their NDCs on economic self-interest. Yet this conclusion was not determinable from the documents that nations submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat when the nations submitted their NDCs (National Climate Justice, Lessons Learned). The study also found that environmental NGOs in the country that supported national action on climate change did not seem to understand how to critique the failure of the nation to set its NDC on the basis of the nation’s ethical obligations including ethical obligations that the nation expressly agreed to.
Every national commitment to reduce greenhouse gas (GOHG) emissions, or NDC, is implicitly a position on two profound ethical questions among others. They are:
the amount of warming and associated harms the nation is willing to inflict on poor vulnerable people and nations, and
the nation’s fair share of global GHG emissions that may not be exceeded to keep global warming from exceeding a warming limit goal.
Yet nations around the world are setting their NDCs on economic self-interest and ignoring their ethical responsibilities on these issues.
Although reasonable people may disagree on what equity requires of nations to reduce their GHG emissions, national economic self-interest as a justification for their GHG reduction targets does not pass minimum ethical scrutiny. In this regard the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said its fifth assessment report that despite ambiguity about what equity means:
There is a basic set of shared ethical premises and precedents that apply to the climate problem that can facilitate impartial reasoning that can help put bounds on the plausible interpretations of ‘equity’ in the burden sharing context. Even in the absence of a formal, globally agreed burden sharing framework, such principles are important in expectations of what may be reasonably required of different actors. (IPCC, 2014).
The IPCC went on to say that these equity principles can be understood to comprise four key dimensions: responsibility, capacity, equality and the right to sustainable development (IPCC, 2014).
And so ethical principles are failing to guide national climate change policy formation despite the uncontroversial applicability of several ethical principles that should guide national climate change policies.
The failure of ethical principles to get traction in guiding policy is a much broader problem than in regard to climate change policy formation alone. Despite the emergence of the academic sub-discipline of environmental ethics in the late 1970s, ethical principles are failing to influence environmental policy-making for most environmental problems.
The claim that ethical principles are rarely guiding environmental policy formation is strongly supported by the comments of the founder of the journal Environmental Ethics, Eugene Hargrove, who in 2003 published an essay “What’s Wrong ? Who’s to Blame? (Hargrove, 2003). This essay invited reflection on why environmental ethics has not had an influence on environmental policy. Just three years later, Robert Frodeman, in the same journal in an article entitled “The Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics” also reflected on the huge failure of environmental ethics to achieve traction in environmental policy formation (Frodeman, 2006).
Since its inception in the late 1970s, academic environmental ethics has been mostly focused on theoretical issues while completely failing to help policy makers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always use arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide dubious unstated norms that are the justification for the arguments and which would often fail minimum ethical scrutiny if the norms were made express and critically reflected on.
One of the reasons why ethical principles have failed to affect environmental policymaking is the failure of the academic discipline of environmental ethics to pay attention to actual controversies that arise in environmental policymaking debates. Academic environmental ethics since its inception in the late 1970s has been almost exclusively focused on theoretical issues, such as how to ground a biocentric or ecocentric ethics, while completely failing to help policymakers understand what is ethically wrong with specific arguments made by opponents of environmental policies who almost always rely on arguments derived from instrumental rationality which hide or ignore dubious unstated norms on which the arguments are based.
II. The Problem of Instrumental Rationality
This article now explains why a first order task that needs to be addressed before ethical principles can play their appropriate role in shaping environmental public policy is to open policymaking arguments on environmental issues including climate change to express ethical reflection. This is a first order task because throughout the world those responsible for environmental policymaking are following instrumental reason, a mode of reason which hides or ignores ethical questions, to determine the acceptability of environmental policies. It is a first order problem because before one can consider what ethical principles should guide policy formation, policymaking must be made open to ethical critique and reflection. If policymakers don’t see and respond to the ethical issues that are implicitly raised by arguments raised against proposed policies, they can’t apply the appropriate ethical rules.
Instrumental rationality is a mode of rationality that is exclusively concerned with the search for efficient means or scientific facts which, consequently, is not concerned with assessing the goals—or ends— that policies should pursue. This form of rationality has existed throughout history, but has become increasingly more dominant in post-Enlightenment liberal democratic capitalist societies (Cruickshank,2014).
Ethics rationality, on the other hand, is concerned about what the goals of society should be. Ethical reasoning seeks to determine what should be the goal of human behavior by examining what is right or wrong, what is permissible or impermissible, what actions are obligatory or non-obligatory, and how burdens of preventing harm should be justly distributed.
Instrumental rationality, because it focuses on means, usually ignores ethical questions about what the goals of policy should be despite the fact that every argument against a proposed environmental policy already contains an unstated norm. For instance, a claim that a proposed climate change policy should not be adopted because it imposes unacceptable costs rests on the unstated norm that the government should not adopt policies that impose significant costs on the economy or specific industries.
Scientific and economic reasoning, which have increasingly dominated public policy-making from the beginning of the Enlightenment, almost always focuses on how to achieve goals, not on what goals or ends should be desired.
Economic rationality often focuses on how to maximize human preferences. Ethics asks a different question of economic activity, namely what preferences humans should have.
Scientific reasoning usually tests hypotheses to determine what “is.” Moral philosophers believe that determining what “is,” which is the proper domain of science, cannot determine what “ought” to be, which is the domain of ethics.
Yet instrumental rationality that scientists and economists deploy in their search for scientific and economic facts has dominated public life and higher education for several centuries.
That instrumental rationality dominates environmental policy making is clear given that most government environmental agencies are staffed exclusively by engineers, scientists, economists, and lawyers but very infrequently by employees trained in ethics. This is huge problem because very few employees of environmental agencies or scientific organizations that make policy recommendations can spot problematic ethical issues that should be acknowledged in policy debates and particularly ethical issues that are ignored or hidden when instrumental rationality is deployed to make policy recommendations. Although employees of government agencies responsible for policy formation often understand they should apply policy rules entailed by relevant laws, many relevant laws do not contain clear rules on how to respond to economic and uncertainty arguments against proposed environmental policies.
Instrumental rationality dominates public policy formation for at least two reasons:
First, sociologists, including Max Weber, have predicted that instrumental rationality would over time crowd out ethical rationality in modern societies because increasingly complex human problems would be relegated to bureaucracies run by technical experts whose expertise depends on the use of instrumental rationality. Since the power of experts depends, in part, on maintaining the fiction that their expertise is the central key to solving modern problems, these experts are reluctant to acknowledge that their analytic tools for solving problems are often ethically inadequate and sometimes ethically inappropriate (Thomas, 2017). Moreover particularly in capitalist societies, wealthy interests are able to hire experts and frequently do so to fight government action which would reduce profits.
Second, opponents of proposed environmental policies usually frame opposition to these policies on the basis of excessive costs to governments or specific industries or lack of scientific certainty about harms the policy seeks to prevent. These arguments very frequently hide controversial normative assumptions implicitly embedded in the arguments. For instance, cost arguments made in opposition to environmental policies often rest on the very ethically dubious idea that any policy which creates significant cost to a nation, regional economy, or to a specific industry should not be adopted even when the problematic behavior causes serious harm to people or nations who have not consented to be harmed. The public debate in response to these claims often narrowly focuses on the magnitude of the costs or whether the regulatory action will create jobs and in so doing ignores several serious ethical problems with these arguments.
In policy disputes about matters in which potential harms are acknowledged by opponents of proposed policies, the public debate about the acceptability of the harms is often limited to some form of “cost-benefit analysis”(CBA).
Yet CBAs frequently hide important ethical issues. If, for instance, a CBA concludes that government action to protect vulnerable people or ecological systems should not be taken because costs of taking action to reduce an environmental threat outweigh the economic value of harms avoided by the proposed regulation, controversial ethical assumptions may be hidden in factual assertions about the magnitude of the costs or value of benefits particularly if:
Potentially but not fully proven catastrophic harms were ignored in the CBA.
The costs of taking action would be imposed upon parties that are harming others, yet the victims of the harm have not consented to be harmed.
Things that were believed to be sacred by one culture are valued in the CBA as if they were commodities whose value can be measured adequately by “willingness-to-pay” monetary measures. CBAs usually commodify all human values and thus value is restricted to monetary value while ignoring other values including sacred value or beliefs that certain entities should not be for sale. Thus in CBAs, usually the value of things that could be harmed are measured by human preferences measured in monetary values. Yet ethics is concerned with what preferences people should hold, not simply what preferences people hold.
Human rights will be violated if regulatory action is not taken.
The proposed government action implements the ethical duty of people to not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
The CBA determined economic value of entities that might be harmed are determined without obtaining the consent of those who might be harmed.
The benefits of government action to protect the environment are discounted too greatly in calculations that seek to allow future benefits of action to be compared to current costs to those who must act to prevent harm (Brown, 2008).
Thus, if a decision to take no government action on a potential environmental problem is justified only as a matter of imbalance between costs and benefits, very dubious ethical assumptions are frequently hidden in the CBA calculations while ethical principles, including those that have been widely acknowledged as valid and applicable to government policy formation are often ignored.
In this writer’s experience, proponents of environmental policies also not only rarely identify the ethical problems with the use of CBAs or almost any cost-based argument made in opposition to proposed policies, they almost always respond to the cost-based arguments by making counter cost claims. And so public debate about proposed policies usually focuses on economic “factual” claims while ignoring ethical principles.
Evidence of the utter dominance of instrumental rationality in the United State includes executive orders of several US presidents which require that any US proposed regulation must satisfy a CBA before it may be promulgated (Congressional Research Service, 2017).
This is so despite the fact that, as we have seen, a CBA used as a prescriptive guide to policymaking often hides many controversial ethical issues including, for instance, the duty of nations to not harm others on the basis of national economic self-interest.
Using cost to those causing harm to others as justification for failing to abate the harm also violates well-established principles of international environmental law including the “polluter pays principle” (Rio Declaration,1992, Principle 16 ) and the “no harm principle.” (UNFCCC,1992, Preamble)..
Yet the United States continues to very frequently base the acceptability of environmental regulations on the results of a CBA.
In 1997, while working as the Program Manager for United Nations Organizations in the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of International Affairs, this author closely observed the US debate about whether the US should agree to the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC. This debate focused exclusively on two different CBAs, one completed by the US EPA and the other by the US Department of Energy which reached slightly different conclusions about the magnitude of negative impacts on US GDP if the US agreed to be bound by the Protocol. Amazingly both CBAs examined costs and benefits to the United States alone if the United States ratified the Kyoto Protocol while completely ignoring potentially harsh climate impacts on poor people around the world and the most vulnerable nations. Yet no one in the US government nor NGOs participating in the debate about whether the US should ratify the Kyoto Protocol raised any ethical problems with the US reliance on CBAs that examined costs and benefits to the US alone as a tool to determine the appropriateness of US action on climate change.
In most Western capitalist countries, corporations and their industry associations have huge political power to frame public policy questions and don’t hesitate to exercise their power to prevent any government action that could lower corporate profits. And so the public debate on proposed policies often focuses on economic “facts,” not ethical duties, despite the almost universally accepted ethical norm agreed to by almost all religions and nations that people should not harm others on the basis of self-interest.
Opposition arguments against proposed environmental policies often rest on the unstated very dubious norm that regulatory action limiting commercial activities should not be taken unless the harms are proven by the government with high degrees of scientific certainty even in cases where achieving high levels of certainty is scientifically difficult or very prohibitively expensive.
For over 30 years, opponents of US action on climate change have frequently based their opposition on scientific uncertainty about human-caused climate change harms despite the fact that the United States agreed to the “precautionary principle” when it agreed to the UNFCCC in 1992. (UNFCCC. 1992, Art 3.3) This principle says that governments will no longer fail to take action on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Yet advocates of national action on climate change in response to opponents’ scientific uncertainty arguments almost always simply claim that the scientific “facts” of harm have been sufficiently scientifically demonstrated not on the ethical rule that precaution is required once it is scientifically established that significant harm might be created by certain human activities.
If a government decides not to act to reduce the threat of environmental harm on the basis of lack of proof of harm, such a decision can hide important ethical questions particularly if:
The government assumes that the proponents of government action to prevent environmental harm should shoulder the burden of proof of demonstrating harm particularly in matters where proof is very expensive, difficult to demonstrate, or cannot be fully demonstrated before potential harms are experienced..
There is credible but uncertain evidence that the current activity may be approaching thresholds that could trigger very serious consequences.
If the government waits until all uncertainties are resolved it will be too late to prevent serious harm.
Some very serious potential harm is judged to be low probability just because the mechanism for causing serious harm is not completely understood so that the probability of the serious harm cannot be confidently evaluated.
The victims of potential harm have not consented to put at risk.
All of these considerations are relevant to climate change yet, the United States has failed to decisively act on climate change since international climate change negotiations began 30 years ago because opponents of US climate change policies have claimed that there is insufficient proof of human-induced climate change caused harms.
Although the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world including most national academies of science and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded with high levels of confidence that humans are causing and threatening great harms from human-induced climate change, even conceding, for the sake of argument, that great harms from human induced climate change are not yet proven, ethical principles requires that action should be taken to reduce the threat of climate change. Yet the ethical basis for requiring action is almost never discussed in the US public debate about whether scientific uncertainty about human-induced climate change is an appropriate justification for US unwillingness to act on climate change.
Scientists employed by environmental agencies usually focus on understanding the environmental harms and risks of various human activities and whether proposed government action will acceptably reduce threats to human health and the environment. The goals of environmental regulatory action are usually given to them by law or regulation such as water pollution should be reduced to prevent unreasonable harm to humans or ecological systems. Yet, in the face of scientific uncertainty about whether human actions may cause harm, scientists cannot determine who should have the burden of proof or what quantity of proof should satisfy the burden of proof by scientific methods alone because these are fundamentally ethical questions.
An understanding the ethical problems with instrumental rationality leads to an understanding of why nations often ignore even well-established ethical principles in policy formation such as the ethical principle that no nation should harm others outside their jurisdiction on the basis of national economic interest.
For this reason, a first-order problem on the road to a world which formulates policies guided by ethical principles is to open policy formation controversies to express consideration of ethical issues. This goal requires that those engaged in policy formation spot and identify the ethical issues frequently hidden in economic and scientific arguments against proposed policies that currently dominate policy formation controversies on environmental issues around the world.
Unfortunately most professionals engaged in environmental policy formation have no training that would help them identify the hidden ethical issues embedded in arguments made against environmental and sustainable development policies. Nor do those NGOs who participate in controversies about these issues have the training to spot ethical problems made by opponents of proposed policies that are derived from various forms of instrumental rationality.
Frodeman, R. (2006) A Policy Turn in Environmental Ethics, Environmental Ethics, 26
Hargrove, E., ‘(2003) What’s Wrong? Who Is to Blame?, Environmental Ethics, 25 (1):3-4,  3-4
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (2014) 5th Assessment Report, Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Chapter 4. Sustainable Development and Equity. Sec 4.6. 2.1, p 4., http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/ assessed , Dec 23, 2017
National Climate Justice, Research Project On Ethics and Justice in Formulating National Climate Policies, Lessons Learned, https://nationalclimatejustice.org, accessed 24 Dec, 2017
This article explains the first two of several issues that citizens need to understand to evaluate appropriate national responses to climate change after the Paris Agreement. Although the mainstream media in the United States and other developed countries has widely reported on some aspects of the Paris Agreement, this series will describe important issues that are largely being ignored by press coverage of the Paris deal.
The first issue is why a 25-year delay in responding to increasingly stronger scientific warnings of the danger of human-induced climate change has made the problem much more threatening. The second is the urgency of the need for hard-to-imagine action to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions at all scales, that is globally, nationally, and locally, but particularly in high-emitting nations such as the United States in light of the limited amount of ghgs that can be emitted by the entire world before raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to very dangerous levels and in light of the need to fairly allocate ghg emissions reductions obligations around the world.
Media in the US has accurately reported on some positive aspects of the Paris deal including:
a. 186 nations have made commitments to reduce the threat of climate change although nations conceded in Paris that current commitments need to be upgraded to prevent dangerous climate change.
b. All nations agreed to limit the increase in global average temperatures to “well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” – the level beyond which scientists believe the Earth will likely begin to experience rapid global warming and to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”, a warming amount which may also cause serious global harms particularly to many poor, vulnerable nations. Also the Paris Agreement says by the second half of this century, there must be a balance between the emissions from human activity such as energy production and farming, and the amount that can be captured by carbon-absorbing “sinks” such as forests or carbon storage technology.
c. All countries agreed to submit updated plans that would ratchet up the stringency of emissions by 2020 and every five years thereafter.
d. Nations agreed to report to each other and the public on how well they are doing to implement their targets and to track progress towards the long-term goal through a robust transparency and accountability system.
e. Developed countries agreed to provide funding to help developing countries make the costly shift to green energy and shore up their defenses against climate change impacts like drought and storms and rich nations must report every two years on their finance levels — current and intended. The document refers $100 billion a year that rich countries had previously pledged to muster by 2020 as a “floor”. Under the new agreement the amount must be updated by 2025.
The Paris Agreement has been widely and accurately portrayed in the mainstream media as creating a policy framework that has the potential to reduce the threat of climate change if nations greatly step up to what they have committed to do. (This framework could have been tightened by including more specific language on several issues proposed by some countries but rejected by others on such matters as human rights, losses and damages, legal effect of the agreement, and financing of adaptation among others, yet the framework includes provisions that these issues can be considered in the years ahead.) However, the enormity of the challenge facing humanity from climate change and the special responsibilities of high-emitting developed nations in particular has not been covered in the mainstream press at least in the United States.
II. The Urgency and Enormity of the Need to Reduce GHG Emissions
Although the mainstream media has widely reported on the fact that the national ghg emissions reductions that were made before the Paris COP are not sufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees C, the media, at least in the United States, has been largely failing to report on the urgency and enormity of the need to rapidly reduce ghg emission globally and how further delays in taking action will dramatically make the problem much more threatening.
Looking at the delay caused by the climate change policy opposition in the United States is illustrative of the harm caused by political opposition to climate change policies worldwide.
The above illustration depicts, in a very abbreviated and sketchy form, that as the scientific evidence of the threat from human-induced climate change became stronger over a 40-year period and as the US political opposition to climate change policies successfully fought to prevent the adoption of robust US climate policies, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 rose from below 320 ppm (parts per million) to current levels of over 400 ppm. (For a much more rigorous analysis of the role of the climate change policy opposition in US climate policy formation see Brown 2002, chap 2 and Brown 2012, chap 2 and numerous articles on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”)
The rise in atmospheric CO2 levels is, of course, not only attributable to the US ghg emissions, yet the United States has played a major blocking role in preventing international action on climate change up until the recent more constructive role of the Obama administration which recently made commitments before the December Paris meeting to reduce US CO2 emissions by 26% to 28 % by 2025 below 2005 levels. However these new US commitments have not yet been implemented in the United States, and even if fully implemented still don’t represent the US fair share of safe global emissions (see report on US INDC. The US commitment, because it is based on a 2005 baseline, masks the fact that is only a mere 13-15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, the baseline used by most of the world. For a discussion of the problems with the Obama administration commitment see report Captain America)
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s commitments still face strong opposition from the US climate change political opposition and are very likely to be rejected if a Republican becomes the next US President in 2016. Furthermore as long as US ghg emissions are exceeding the US fair share of safe global emissions, US ghg emissions are making the already very perilous climate change threat worse.
A detailed description of the climate change disinformation campaign that is responsible for much of the political opposition that has been largely responsible for the over 25-year US delay in responding to the scientific warnings about the threat of climate change is beyond the scope of this article but has been extensively discussed on this website under the category of “disinformation campaign.”
To fully understand the nature of the harm caused by this delay it is necessary to understand the policy implications of a “carbon budget” that must limit global emissions to avoid dangerous warming levels. .
To understand the policy implications of a carbon budget it is helpful to see the atmosphere as like a bathtub to the extent that it has limited volume and has been filling up with ghg so that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have been rising in proportion to human activities which release ghgs.
CO2 levels remained relatively stable for 10,000 years before the beginning of the industrial revolution at approximately 280 ppm (the lower line in the bathtub). Human activities have been responsible from elevating CO2 atmospheric concentration levels to the current concentration of approximately 400 ppm (the second line from the bottom of the tub). Although there is considerable scientific evidence that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C is necessary to prevent very dangerous warming, a fact implicit in the recent Paris Agreement in which nations agreed to work to keep warming as close as possible from exceeding 1.5 degrees C additional warming, if the international community seeks to limit warming to 2 degrees C it must assure that global emissions do not exceed the number of tons of CO2 emissions that will raise atmospheric concentrations to levels that will cause warming of 2 degrees C. This number, that is the number of tons of CO2 emissions that can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations exceed levels that will cause dangerous climate change, is what is meant by a carbon budget.
This illustration, using figures from the most recent 2014 IPCC report, depicts that because only 800 gigatons of CO2 can be emitted by humanity before creating a 66% probability that a 2 degree C warming limit will be exceeded and humans have by 2011 already emitted 530 gigatons of CO2, there are only 270 gigatons of CO2 that may be emitted after 2011 to limit warming to 2 degrees C. (For a more detailed explanation of these figures see, Pidcock 2013)
The enormity of the challenge for the international community to keep warming from exceeding dangerous level can be understood by the fact that the remaining carbon budget is so small, that is approximately 270 gigatons of CO2, and current global ghg emissions are in excess of 10 gigatons per year and still rising, which means that even if the international community could stabilize global CO2 emissions levels there would be nothing left to allocate among all nations in 23 years. This grim fact is even bleaker if the international community concludes that it should limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, a conclusion that might become more obvious if current levels of warming start to make positive feedbacks visible in the next few years such as methane leakage from frozen tundra or more rapid loss of arctic ice.
The concept of the carbon budget explains why waiting to reduce ghg emissions levels to a certain percentage in the future is more harmful than rapid reductions earlier because the longer it takes to reduce emissions the more the remaining budget is consumed. For this reason, a joint research project between Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland recommended in Paris that national climate commitments be stated in tons of emissions over a specific period rather than percent reductions by a given date because waiting to the end of specific period to achieve percent reductions will cause the total tons of ghg emitted to be higher than if reductions are made earlier.
The enormous significance of the carbon budget can be seen from the following chart prepared by the Global Commons Institute.
The illustration depicts the enormity and urgency of global emissions reductions that would be necessary to limit warming to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees C given the steepness of the reductions curves necessary to limit warming to 2.0 degrees C with a 50% probability (the red dotted line), 2.0 degrees C with a 66% probability (the blue dotted line), and 1.5 degrees C (the green dotted line). The steepness of these curves superimposed on actual national ghg emissions levels is an indication of the enormity of the challenge for the international community because the emissions reduction curves are much steeper than reductions that can be expected under projections of what current national commitments are likely to achieve if fully implemented. The steepness of these reductions curves is somewhat controversial because any calculation of a carbon budget which determines the steepness of the the needed reduction curve must make assumptions about when positive feedbacks in the climate system will be triggered by rising temperatures, yet these controversies are reflected in giving different probabilities about the likelihood of achieving a specific warming limit. Yet even carbon budgets which have been discussed in the carbon budget literature which have assumed lower amounts of positive feedback yield very. very steep reduction curves.
The enormous increase in the magnitude of the challenge that has been caused by delay given the limited carbon budget can be seen from a recent statement of Jim Hansen who said that “the required rate of emissions reduction would have been about 3.5% per year if reductions had started in 2005 and continued annually thereafter, while the required rate of reduction, if commenced in 2020, will be approximately 15% per year. Without doubt every delay in reducing ghg emissions makes the problem more difficult and more expensive to solve. For this reason, all nations should aim to reduce ghg emissions as quickly as possible and any nation which opposes doing so on the basis of scientific uncertainty should be asked if the nation is willing to take full legal and financial responsibility for harms caused by any delay.
III. On the Additional Need to Make National GHG Emissions Allocations on the Basis of Equity
The above chart also helps explain the gross unfairness of requiring all nations to reduce by the same percentage reduction rates to achieve the globally needed emissions reductions because some nations are emitting at vastly higher per capita rates and some nations are responsible much more than others for raising atmospheric ghg concentrations to current dangerous elevated levels which are now in excess of 400 ppm CO2. .If each nation had to reduce their ghg emissions only to conform to the rates described in the reduction curves in the above chart despite their steepness, it would lead to grossly unfair results because of great differences among countries in per capita and historical emissions levels and urgent needs to increase energy consumption to escape grinding poverty in poor developing countries.
Per capita carbon levels by nations
The above chart gives some indication of huge differences in nations in per capita ghg emissions. If nations must reduce their ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, then such an allocation will freeze into place huge differences in per capita rights to emit ghg emissions into the atmosphere. If, for instance, the United States and India are required to reduce ghg emissions by the same percentage amount, for instance 90%, then the US per capita emissions of approximately 20 tons CO2 per capita would allow US citizens to emit CO2 at the rate of 2 tons per capita while the current India per capita emissions of approximately 1.8 tons per capita would mean that the Indian citizens could emit only at the rate 0.18 tons per capita even though India needs to dramatically increase its energy use to assure that hundreds of millions of people economically rise out of grinding poverty and India has comparatively done little to cause the existing problem. This result is clearly grossly unfair particularly in light of the fact that India has emitted far less tons of CO2 than most developed countries and therefore is less responsible for causing the existing problem than many developed nations. If some consideration for historical responsibility is not taken into account in allocating national responsibility for ghg emissions reductions, then those poor nations which have done very little to create the current threat of climate change will be required to shoulder a greater burden of needed global ghg emissions obligations than would be required of them if responsibility for the existing problem is not taken into account. As a result, although there are reasonable differences of opinion among nations about how to consider historical national ghg emission in determining national ghg emissions reductions allocations, including when, for instance, historical responsibility should be measured, almost all equity frameworks agree that prior levels of ghg emissions must have some consideration in national ghg allocations.There is also reasonable disagreement in the equity literature about what weight should be given to other matters that are widely considered to be valid considerations in determining fairness including the economic capability of rich countries to pay for ghg emissions reductions technologies and per capita considerations.
Yet unless fairness is taken into account in allocating national ghg targets necessary to prevent dangerous climate change, those nations who are mostly responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations will not be held responsible for their past ghg emissions while nations who have done almost nothing to cause the rise of atmospheric concentrations will be held equally responsible for lowering emissions.
From the above illustration it can be seen that the United States and the EU are more responsible for raising atmospheric concentrations to current dangerous levels than than the rest of the world combined.
Many opponents of climate change policies argue that countries like the United States should not have to reduce their ghg emissions until China reduces its emissions by comparable amounts because China is now the largest emitter of all nations in terms of total tons, yet such an argument usually ignores the historical responsibility of countries like the United States which the following illustration reveals is more than twice as responsible for current elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than China is. (For a discussion of the fact that there are both a strong ethical and legal arguments that explain why no nation may use the claim that it need not reduce its ghg emissions until other nations do so, see, Brown 2012 p 214 )
Although there is a difference of opinion in the “equity” literature about how to consider valid equity considerations including per capita, historical emissions levels, and the economic capabilities of nations to fiance non-fossil energies, all nations agree that national commitments about ghg emissions reductions must consider fairness.
For this reason the Paris Agreement calls for nations to reduce their ghg emissions “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances.” (Paris Agreement, Article 2)
In other words, the international community has agreed that national ghg emissions reductions commitments must be based on “equity” or “fairness.”
And so as a matter of international law under the Paris Agreement, national commitments to reduce ghg emissions must be based on achieving a warming limit as close as possible to 1.5 degrees C but no greater than 2 degrees C, a requirement often referred to as the level of “ambition” but national commitments also must be based on “equity” or “fairness.” Although there are some reasonable disagreements among many engaged in climate policy debates about what “equity” or “fairness” requires, all nations have agreed that their obligations to reduce ghg emissions must consider equity or fairness principles.
However, if high-emitting nations take the “equity” and “fairness” requirement seriously, they will need to not only reduce ghg emissions at very, very rapid rates, a conclusion that follows from the steepness of the remaining budget curves alone, but also they will have to reduce their ghg emissions much faster than poor developing nations and faster than the global reductions curves entailed only by the need to stay within a carbon budget.
Source, Global Commons Institute
The above illustration prepared by the Global Commons Institute shows that even if only one equity consideration is taken into account, in this case per capita fairness, the USA ghg emissions reductions must be much faster than the rest of the world. Other organizations who have made calculations of the US fair share of the remaining carbon budget using different equity factors have concluded that the US fair share of safe global emissions is even smaller than that depicted in the above chart. For instance the following illustration prepared by EcoEquity and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that the US fair share of global emissions, making what the authors of the report claim are moderate assumptions of what equity requires, demonstrates that equity not only requires the US to reduce its emissions to zero quickly almost immediately but that US obligations to prevent a 2 degree C rise requires the US to substantially fund ghg emissions reductions in other countries by 2025 despite achieving zero emissions by 2020.
The above illustration, following the assumptions about what equity requires made by the authors of the report about how to determine US emissions reductions obligations, leads to the conclusion not only does the United States need to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2020, the US must reduce its emissions by -141% from 1990 levels by 2025. National Fair Shares. p 18. This is to be achieved, according to the report, by US financial support for reductions in developing countries .
Although national ghg emissions reductions commitments that have been evaluated by different organizations which have made different assumptions about how to calculate what equity requires of nations have come to different conclusions, most evaluations of national commitments made through an equity prism done before Paris concluded that even if they high emitting nations achieve net zero emissions by 2050, they will need, as a matter of equity and justice, to help pay the costs of emissions reductions in poor developing countries or finance technologies that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. The reasons for this are that the remaining carbon budget is so small, the per capita and historical emissions of high-emitting developed nations are so large compared to poor developing countries, and the financial resources of developed countries are so large compared to poor developing countries that equity considerations demand that the high-emitting nations financially help developing nations achieve their targets.
Without doubt, if nations reduce their ghg emissions to levels required of them by ambition, that is levels required by conformance with a carbon budget necessary to assure that future warming is limited to 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C adjusted to also consider equity and fairness, the international community is faced with an extraordinarily daunting challenge. Moreover, any delay in meeting this challenge will make the problem worse.
The Paris Agreement created a framework for solving the climate problem, yet the post-Paris media has poorly covered the implications for nations of what sufficient ambition and fairness should be required of nations when they formulate national climate policies if very dangerous climate change is to be avoided. As a result, there appears to be little awareness of the huge damage that will likely be caused by further delay. The research report of Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland has revealed that there appears to be little awareness around the world about what ambition and equity requires of nations when they formulate national climate change policies. As a result the international community is not likely to respond with sufficient urgency and ambition unless greater awareness of the policy implications of the need to live within a carbon budget at levels required of nations because of equity and fairness considerations.
Because of this, perhaps the most important immediate goal of climate change policy proponents is to help educate civil society and governments about the need to move urgently to make extremely rapid decreases in ghg emissions whereever governments can and to the maximum extent possible in light of the policy implications of limiting national ghg emissions to levels constrained by a carbon budget and in response to what fairness requires of nations. .
Brown. D. (2002) American Heat: Ethical Problems with the United States Response to Global Warming, Roman Littelfield, Lantham Maryland
Brown. D. (2012) Climate Change Ethics: Navigating the Perfect Moral Storm, Routledge/Earthscan, Oxon, England
As the last two days of the negotiations are now before us, the US mainstream media coverage of the UNFCCC COP 21 in Paris continues to miss some of the most important issues that US citizens need to understand to evaluate the US government’s response to climate change. Although there has been ample coverage of President Obama’s appearance at the beginning of the Paris COP and abundant coverage of a few issues such as the fact that national commitments on ghg emissions reductions are not likely sufficient to limit warming to 20 C, there has been only sketchy coverage at best of the following issues:
The enormity and urgency of global ghg emissions reductions that are needed to limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees C. Only when citizens fully understand the limited carbon budget that remains to be distributed among all the nations of the world if the international community is going to retain hope of limiting warming to non-dangerous levels can they understand why all nations must increase their ambition in reducing ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions.
The evidence that 1.5 degrees C should be the warming limit for the world that all nations should seek to achieve rather than 2 degrees C. To the extent that the press has covered the controversy between setting a global warming limit at 2 degrees C or 1.5 degrees C. the press has left the impression as if this is simply a choice for the international community without explaining the enormous danger for many poor developing countries that turns on this choice. Unless citizens understand how some countries are put at much greater risk if the warming limit remains at 2 degrees C they cannot clearly reflect on their moral responsibility to act to limit warming to lower amounts.
The implications of taking equity and justice seriously in allocating national ghg emissions reduction targets for the United States including the fact that if the United States would take its equitable obligations seriously it would not only have to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2050, it would have to financially contribute to the costs of emissions reductions in developing countries.
The damage to the world from an almost 30 year US delay in taking serious steps to reduce the threat of climate change including the enormity of global ghg emissions reductions that are now necessary compared to the reductions that would have been necessary if the United States and the world acted more forcefully a decade ago or so earlier.
The ethical and legal reasonableness of requiring high-emitting nations including the United States to financially contribute to the costs of adaptation, losses, and damages in poor, vulnerable nations that have done little to cause the threat of climate change.
The enormity of growing costs for needed adaptation, loses, and damages in poor developing countries. Without a clear understanding of how adaptation and loses and damages costs increase dramatically as delays continue in making adequate dramatic ghg emissions reductions, citizens cannot evaluate the need of their nations to act rapidly to reduce ghg emissions.
The failure of developed countries to meet their obligations to help poor vulnerable nations meet clear adaptation needs.
Why the commitment on reducing ghg emissions by the Obama administration, despite it being a welcome change from prior US responses to climate change, is still woefully inadequate.
The utter ethical and moral bankruptcy of the positions of opponents of climate change policies in the United States that are being presented in opposition to the Paris negotiations.
This blog will cover these issues in more detail in coming entries.
Research conducted by Widener University Commonwealth Law School and the University of Auckland concludes that national debates about climate change policies and the press coverage of these issues are for the most part ignoring the obvious ethical and moral problems both with how nations are justifying climate change commitments and the arguments of climate change policy opponents at the national level. (See Nationalclimatejustice.org under “lessons learned.”) This is so despite the fact that:
(a) It is impossible for a nation to think clearly about climate policy until the nation takes a position on two ethical issues: (1) what warming limit the nation is seeking to achieve through its policy, and (d) what is the nation’s fair share of safe global emissions. These are ethical issues that can’t be decided through economic or scientific analysis alone.
(b) Climate change policy making raises numerous ethical issues that arise in policy formulation. (See below)
(c) Ethical arguments made in response to the arguments of climate change policy arguments are often the strongest arguments that can be made in response to the claims of climate policy opponents because most arguments made by opponents of climate policies fail to pass minimum ethical scrutiny.
(d) Climate change more than any other environmental problem has features that scream for attention to see it fundamentally as a moral, ethical, and justice issue. These features include: (a) It is a problem overwhelmingly caused by high-emitting nations and individuals that is putting poor people and nations who have done little to cause the problem at greatest risk, (b) the harms to the victims are potentially catastrophic losses of life or the destruction of ecosystems on which life depends, (c) those most at risk usually can’t petition their own governments for protection, their best hope is that high emitters of ghgs will respond to their moral obligations to not harm others, and, (d) any solution to the enormous threat of climate change requires high emitting nations to lower their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions, a classic problem of distributive justice.
Our research has discovered that most journalists and national debates about climate policies around the world have largely ignored the numerous ethical issues that arise in climate policy formation and instead usually have narrowly responded to the arguments of the opponents of climate policy which have almost always been variations of claims that climate change policies should be opposed because: (a) they will harm national economic interests, or (b) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant action.
Yet numerous issues arise in climate change policy formation for which ethical and moral considerations are indispensable to resolve these issues and moral arguments about these issues are by far the strongest responses to arguments on these issues usually made by opponents of climate policies. The issues include:
Can a nation justify its unwillingness to adopt climate change policies primarily on the basis of national economic interest alone?
When is scientific uncertainty an ethically acceptable excuse for non-action for a potentially catastrophic problem like climate change given that waiting until the uncertainties are resolved makes the problem worse and more difficult to solve?
Should proponents or opponents of climate change policies have the burden of proof to scientifically demonstrate that climate change is or is not a threat before climate change policies are in enacted?
What level of proof, such as, for instance, 95% confidence levels or the balance of the evidence, is needed to demonstrate climate change is a threat that warrants policy responses?
What amount of climate change harm is it ethically acceptable for a nation to impose on those nations or people outside their jurisdiction who will be harmed without their consent?
How aggressive should a nation be in achieving carbon neutrality?
Do high emitting nations have an ethical responsibility to reduce their ghg emissions as dramatically and quickly as possible or is their responsibility limited to assuring that their ghg emissions are no greater than their fair share of safe global emissions?
How transparent should a nation be in explaining the ethical basis for national ghg commitments particularly in regard to sufficiency of the ambition and fairness of the national commitments?
To what extent does a nation’s financial ability to reduce ghg emissions create an ethical obligation to do so?
What are the rights of potential victims of climate change to consent to a nation’s decision to delay national action on the basis of national cost or scientific uncertainty?
Who gets to decide what amount of global warming is acceptable?
Who should pay for reasonable adaptation needs of victims of climate change?
Do high emitting nations and individuals have a moral responsibility to pay for losses and damages caused climate change to people or nations who have done little to cause climate change?
How should national ghg targets consider the per capita or historical emissions of the nation in establishing their national climate commitments?
How should a nation prioritize its climate change adaptation needs?
Who has a right to participate in a nation’s decision about funding and prioritizing domestic and foreign adaptation responses?
How does global governance need to be changed to deal with climate change?
What difference for climate change policy-making is entailed by the conclusion that climate change violates human rights?
If climate change violates human rights, can economic costs to polluting nations be be a relevant consideration in the development of national climate policy?
Can one nation condition its response to the threat of climate change on the actions or inaction of other nations?
Which equity framework should a nation follow to structure its response to climate change?
What principles of distributive justice may a nation consider in determining its fair share of safe global emissions?
What kind of crime, tort, or malfeasance is spreading disinformation about climate change science by those who have economic interests in resisting constraints on fossil fuel?
What are the ethical limits of economic reasoning about the acceptability of climate change policies?
What ethical issues arise from cap and trade or carbon taxing solutions to climate change?
What is ethically acceptable climate change scientific skepticism, for instance should all climate skeptics be expected to subject their claims in peer-reviewed journals?
Can a politician avoid responsibility for taking action on climate change simply on the basis that he or she is not a climate change scientist?
What ethical obligations are triggered by potentially catastrophic but low probability impacts from climate change and who gets to decide this?
What are the ethical limits to using cost-benefit analyses as a prescriptive guide to national climate policies?
What responsibility do high emitting nations have for climate refugees?
When are potential adverse environmental impacts of low emitting ghg technologies such as solar and wind a valid excuse for continuing to use high emitting ghg fossil fuel technologies?
Who gets to decide whether geo-engineering techniques which could lessen the adverse impacts of climate change are acceptable as long as these techniques could also create potential previously unexperienced environmental impacts?
What are the ethical and moral responsibilities of sub-national governments, businesses, organizations and individuals for climate change?
Can poor nations which have done little to cause climate change justify non-action on climate change on the basis of their lack of historical responsibility for climate change if some citizens or entities in the country are emitting high amounts of ghgs?
Do poor low-emitting nations have any moral responsibility for climate change and what is it?
When should a nation be bound by provisions of international law relevant to climate change including provisions in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that they agreed to such as the “no-harm,” and “precautionary? principles and the duty of developed nations to take the lead on climate change?
To what extent should stakeholder groups that advise governments on climate policies be gender and minority representative?
This website contains over 160 articles on these and other climate change ethical issues.
This is the third article in a three part series that makes recommendations to NGOs and citizens on how to respond to opponents of climate change policies if Pope Francis’ claim that climate change is fundamentally a moral problem is correct. The first in this series made recommendations on how to respond to arguments against climate change policies based on cost if climate change is a moral problem. The second made recommendations on how to respond to arguments made against climate change policies based on scientific uncertainty. This entry makes recommendations on how to respond to arguments against climate policies based on claims that it would be unfair or ineffective if a nation makes significant reductions in ghg emissions if other nations such as China or India does not act,
Pope Francis’ Encyclical, Laudato Si, On Care for Our Common Future, is attracting high-level attention around the world for its claim that climate change is a moral problem which all people have a duty to prevent. If his claim that climate change is essentially and fundamentally a moral problem is widely accepted, a conclusion that is strongly supported by basic ethical theory as explained on this website many times, it has the potential to radically transform how climate change has been debated in many nations around the world for the last twenty-five years because opponents of climate change policies have been very successful in framing the public debate so that it has focused on several issues almost exclusively. This framing has enabled the climate change debate to ignore ethical and moral issues that should have been part of the debate. The opponents of climate change policies have succeeded in opposing proposed climate change law and policy by claiming that government action on climate change should be opposed because: (1) it will impose unacceptable costs on national economics or specific industries and destroy jobs, (2) there is too much scientific uncertainty to warrant government action, or (3) it would be unfair and ineffective for nations like the United States to adopt expensive climate policies as long as China or India fail to adopt serious greenhouse gas emissions reductions policies. Common to these arguments is that they have successfully framed the climate change debate so that opponents and proponents of climate policies debate facts about costs, scientific uncertainty, or economic harms to nations that act while other large emitters don’t act rather the moral problems with these arguments.
However, if climate change is understood as essentially a moral and ethical problem it will eventually transform how climate change is debated because the successful framing by the opponents of climate change policies that have limited recent debate to these three arguments, namely cost, scientific uncertainty, and unfairness of reducing ghg emissions until China does so can be shown to be deeply ethically and morally problematic.
This series argues that NGOs, governments, and citizens should ask opponents of climate change policies questions designed to bring attention to the obvious ethical and moral problems with arguments made by opponents of climate change policies. Each question is followed by a brief description of the moral problem that the question is designed to bring to light.
II. Questions to be asked of those opposing government action climate change on the basis that other nations such as China and India have not reduced their ghg emissions.
When you argue that nations such as the United States need not reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions because other nations such as China or India have not taken action,
1. Are you claiming that no nation has a duty to reduce its ghgs emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until all other nations reduce their greenhouse gas emissions accordingly?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of all nations to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do because any nation emitting ghg emissions above its fair share of safe global emissions is contributing to elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations which are harming and threatening others.
2. If you claim that the US or other developed nation has no duty to act on climate change until China acts, do you agree that economic competitors such has China have no duty to reduce their ghg emissions until the United States does so?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact if the United States or other high-emitting nation has no duty to reduce its ghg emissions to its fair share of safe global emissions until other nations do the same, no nation has a duty to act until the US responds to its obligations, a patently absurd conclusion.
3. Are you aware that the claim frequently made by opponents of US and other national action on climate change that if the country acts to reduce its ghg emissions and China or other developing country does not act it will make no difference because climate change will still happen is not true because ghg emissions from nations exceeding their fair share of safe global emissions are responsible for rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs?
This question is designed to correct the false claim that as long as a country such as China does not act, any action by a high-emitting nation such as the United States to reduce its ghg emissions makes no difference. This is factually not true because as long as a developed nation’s ghg emissions are above its fair share of safe global emissions they are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations of ghgs.
4. Are you aware that the United States agreed when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 to adopt policies and measures to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system on the basis of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities and that developed nations agreed to take the lead in reducing the threat of climate change?
This question is designed to bring attention to the fact that the United States and other developed nations have promised to take action to reduce their ghg emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions regardless of what other nations do under the UNFCCC.
6. Are you aware that all nations have a duty under customary international law to prevent harm by ensuring that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction?
This question is designed to expose the ethical duty of the United States and other high-emitting nations under international law to prevent its citizens from engaging in activities which cause climate change damages as a matter international law without regard to what other nations do.
7. Are you aware that the United States is much more responsible for elevated atmospheric ghg concentrations than any other country including China because of US historical and per capita emissions?
This question is designed to expose the strong ethical obligation of the United States and many other high-emitting nations to reduce their ghg emissions without regard to what other nations do because they are more responsible for dangerous elevated atmospheric levels of ghgs than any countries.